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Julian Rossi Ashton (1851-1942), art teacher and artist, was born on January 27, 1851 at Addelstone, Surrey, England, elder son of a wealthy American, Thomas Briggs Ashton, and his wife Henrietta, daughter of Count Carlo Rossi, a Sardinian diplomat. Soon after his birth the family moved to Gulval, Cornwall, where his father, an amateur painter, encouraged the artistic leanings of Julian and his brother George. About 1862 the Ashtons moved to Totnes on the River Dart, where Julian attended the local grammar school, but his father died and the family, now in financial straits, went to London. Julian had art lessons from an old friend of his father whose teaching he described as 'the most helpful I ever had'. At 15 he took a job in the civil engineering branch of the Great Eastern Railway and attended the West London School of Art at night; after three years he joined a firm of ironmongers as a draftsman, but soon left to become a successful illustrator for such journals as Chatterbox and Cassell's Magazine. In 1873 he spent a few months at the new Académie Julian in Paris; he returned to illustration in London and had work accepted by the Royal Academy of Arts. On 1 August 1876 at Hackney he married Eliza Ann Pugh (d.1900).
Ashton, with his wife and son, reached Melbourne in the Cuzco on June 18, 1878, to work on David Syme's Illustrated Australian News. His decision to migrate was seemingly dictated by a lifelong asthmatic condition. In 1881 he joined the Melbourne-based Australasian Sketcher and in 1883 moved to Sydney to work on the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia: until 1886 he traveled extensively throughout Australia drawing points of interest; he also drew for the Bulletin.
In 1886 Ashton began to teach privately. In 1892-95 he conducted classes at the Art Society of New South Wales of which he had been president in 1887-92. Artistic professionalism was a vexed question and in 1895 Ashton joined a new professional body, the Society of Artists, Sydney. Sacked from his teaching position, he established his own school in King Street, moved it to the Queen Victoria Markets in 1906 and renamed it the Sydney Art School. In George Street from 1935 it became the Julian Ashton School and always enjoyed a considerable reputation: among his students were George Lambert, Elioth Gruner, Jesse Hilder, Thea Proctor, Sydney Ure Smith, William Dobell, Jean Bellette and D. Dundas.
His wife Eliza had literary and musical interests and was a social writer for the Daily Telegraph in the 1890s. She was a foundation member and councilor of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales, which she later embarrassed by her outspoken criticism of marriage, and was on the committee of the Women's Literary Society.
In 1889-99 Ashton was a trustee of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales and was responsible for its enlightened patronage of local artists. He bought the first (Sir) Arthur Streeton for the gallery, Still Glides the Stream and Shall Forever Glide, in 1890 for £70. Questions were asked in parliament about the number of his own paintings bought by the trustees; he had played no part in their selection. He organized the 1898 exhibition of Australian art in London at the Grafton Gallery, and used his influence with Sir Henry Parkes, Bernhard Ringrose Wise and benefactor Howard Hinton among others, to promote the work of Hilder, Norman Lindsay and the Australian Impressionists.
In 1897-98 Ashton was president of the Society of Artists which in 1903 amalgamated with the Art Society of New South Wales to become the Royal Art Society of New South Wales. In 1907 he led a successful move to re-establish the Society of Artists, and was president until 1921 and vice-president until 1940, when he returned to the Royal Art Society. Because of Ashton's domination, the society became strongly identified with his art school.
In 1892 Ashton had been commissioned by George Adams to decorate the 'Marble Bar' at his well-known hotel. He was behind the establishment in 1911 of the Fine Arts Society's gallery and shop in Bligh Street, the first to deal solely in Australian art. He also lectured and wrote frequently, especially for Art in Australia.
Ashton was a well-established artist in both oils and watercolor. He claimed his Evening, Merri Creek (1882) was the first plein air painting done in Australia. His early landscapes had a distinctly Australian feeling of light and space. He was also known for his romantic figure-paintings, many done at beaches near his home at Bondi. He painted the portraits of, among others, Parkes and Archbishop Michael Kelly. About 1914 his sight began to deteriorate, first with colorblindness (said to be yellow and blue) and later with a condition that severely limited his peripheral vision; this, in addition to his asthma, forced him to reduce his activities, although he remained vocal on art matters, particularly modernism, which he condemned for bad draftsmanship and poor craftsmanship. Awarded the Society of Artists' medal for distinguished services to Australian art in 1924, he was appointed C.B.E. in 1930, and won the Sydney sesquicentenary prize for a water-colour in 1938. He published his reminiscences, Now Came Still Evening On, in 1941.
Strong, white-haired and ruddy-faced, Ashton had a military-type moustache. He bathed in the sea all year round, cultivated his vegetable patch and, 'as a bit of a fancier', tended his poultry. Lionel Lindsay found him 'a generous friend, a fine enemy'. An inspired teacher although less gifted as a painter, he dominated artistic circles in Sydney for over fifty years. 'No other man did so much towards making the place of art in the community better understood and appreciated'. In Home (March 1924) Arthur Jose named him as one of 'the seven greatest living Australians'.
Ashton died on 27 April 1942 at Bondi and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by two of his four sons and a daughter of his first marriage, and by his second wife Constance Irene, née Morley, whom he had married on 8 September 1902. His estate was valued for probate at £4343. His portrait by George Lambert is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
The Julian Ashton Book (Syd, 1920); K. Campbell, Julian Rossi Ashton … as Art Politician (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1974); D. Thomas, Julian Rossi Ashton … A Bibliography (State Library of New South Wales); H. Heysen letters (National Library of Australia); H. Ashton, Autobiography, Flee from the Press, and family papers.
Adapted from the text by Katherine Harper in: Katherine Harper, 'Ashton, Julian Rossi (1851 - 1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, Melbourne University Press, 1979, pp 114-115.
Information courtesy of William Brooks